Empty concepts [are a good idea]

There is nothing quite like an enjoyable day spent getting to know my field a bit better wrapped up with a few hours spent overlooking Queens Parade, sipping on a beer and contemplating equality. Yes, last night I went to another Melbourne Free University event.

‘Equality’ was the topic of the first I (heart) philosophy session. The speaker started with a discussion of some different, politically mobilised, concepts of equality. The deficiencies of such concepts were highlighted. The solution posed by the speaker was that equality should simply be the starting point. That everybody is equal should be an axiomatic statement, not some imagined future to work towards. Ranciere’s The ignorant schoolmaster provided the grounding for such an idea, through supporting the claim that in intelligence we are all equal because intelligence is not quantifiable, we all have the will and the motivation. It is a lot of responsibility, but equality need to be enacted.

Unsurprisingly, I was most interested in the theme running through the discussion of the prioritising of theory in comparison with practice. There were a number of people who were focused on actioning equality and spoke about ‘doing for’ others. This covered situations in which there were people who need to be ‘enabled’ to be equal because they do not meet our criteria for independent subjects, but also systems which bring about inequality. It was suggested that we could use the word ‘equity’ instead of equality to describe this. However, I think the unease that some people had with the speaker’s notion of equality is summed up by someone’s claim that such a concept of equality would only mean ‘being alive’.

As for the evening more generally, I could be wrong, but I think some of those present were uncomfortable with the speaker’s treatment of the notion of ‘human rights’. Identity politics was a bit of a reoccurring theme in discussion time. Finally, I want to make sure I mention that someone put forward Martha Fineman’s work on the vulnerability of human beings as another way we need to look at equality.

As for my personal challenge of trying to say something rather than just pointing to things about the world, the session did not feel challenging but I loved the fact that the speaker put forward his ‘solution’. Concepts that are not immediately applicable clearly still matter, and sometimes it takes time to come to understand what concepts or ideas we are willing to say are right. I believe this is a worthwhile process, even if what I decide is right is not something I can immediately make happen. After all, if we only thought about what was actionable then how would anything ever change?


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One Response to “Empty concepts [are a good idea]”

  1. Tracey Says:

    I can’t believe that I wrote this post and did not put in a reference to Anthony Cohen’s The Symbolic Construction of Community.

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